Dank Money

How Trump’s troll army is cashing in on his campaign

Elena Scotti/FUSION

Matt Adams is invested in the candidacy of Donald Trump, but not just because he wants to Make America Great Again. For Adams, Trumps’ ascendency to presumptive presidential nominee of the Republican party comes with a cash prize. Potentially, he hopes, a big one.

Adams, a 46-year-old web developer and IT specialist in northern Maryland, runs the Facebook group Trump Nation. With 47,615 likes, it is among the most popular of the hundreds of Facebook pages dedicated to spreading the good word of Trump. And like many of the most popular Trump pages, it’s hoping to profit from the candidate’s fervent fandom: in addition to posts extolling Trumpian virtues, it’s hawking custom-designed Trump t-shirts, stickers, car flags, and, soon, a 14-carat-gold Trump lapel pin. Adams thinks Trump is the most marketable presidential candidate in history.

Half of the 25 most popular pro-Trump pages were selling Trump merchandise. By contrast, just four of the top 25 pro-Clinton pages had merchandise for sale.

“If you have something cool for [Trump supporters] to wear, they will buy it,” Adams said. “Everybody and their mother is selling something Trump.”

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Trump’s rise to power was fueled by his business experience, so it may come as no surprise that many of his acolytes are similarly obsessed with money-making. We queried Facebook’s Graph API to find pages that mention “Trump,” “Make America Great Again,” or a similar candidate-related phrase and found more than 700 pages discussing Trump’s candidacy on Facebook. More than half of the total “likes” for those pages went to ones that, like Trump Nation, were selling something. Some of Trump’s most visible online supporters, in other words, are people cashing in on his political success.

“You can never be too greedy,” Trump once said. We can only imagine that the candidate would approve.

Data source: Facebook Graph API search results as of April 9, 2016 showing the popularity of pages in support of Trump, against Trump and selling goods using Trump. Pages owned by the candidate himself or unrelated to the candidate’s presidential campaign were removed from the dataset.

The goods for sale on the Facebook pages include t-shirts, ads, credit cards and online training seminars. Some pages have darker business practices, linking to spam sites designed to capture user e-mail addresses or sites that infect their computers with malware.

Not all of the entrepreneurs have particularly strong political loyalties, as they also run pages that sell gear targeted at Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders supporters. The promoters of this particular unisex Trump tank, for example, sell Clinton gear, too.

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What’s disturbing is that in a review of dozens of these pages, we found many entrepreneurs embrace rhetoric filled with bigotry, misogyny and hate in order to attract clicks and turn a profit. Take this anti-Muslim post, for example, shared to a Trump fan page called Donald Trump for President 2016!!!!!!:

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The post linked to TrumpNews.Strangled.net (a now dead site) that then redirected to a site that pays users to share links. The blatant racism here, it seems, was part of a pay-for-clicks ad scheme. The post itself received more than 371 comments before it was removed six days later, presumably for violating terms of service.

The profit-motivated political trolling appears to be almost exclusive to Trump. We compared Trump fan pages to those for Hillary Clinton: half of the 25 most popular pro-Trump pages were either selling Trump merchandise or using the Trump brand to promote content hosted on other sites. By contrast, just four of the top 25 pro-Clinton pages had merchandise for sale.

It is the nature of Trump himself that makes his candidacy ripe for this kind of exploitation. The Trump brand was already an easily marketed and recognizable commodity. His political brand has followed suit, with his official campaign gear so popular that some have wondered whether his presidential run is really just an elaborate scheme to sell hats.

Some of Trump’s most visible online supporters are people cashing in on his political success.

Al Ferretti, a Minnesota digital marketing consultant who runs Trump for President Fan Club as well as two other Trump fan pages, told us that when he did an online survey of those who visited his page’s corresponding website, 70 percent of respondents offered up their email addresses.

“In all my years as a marketer, I’ve never seen anything like it,” he said. In other words, Trump fans are easy pickings.

The most popular Facebook page our query returned was “Donald Trump For President,” which has more than 700,000 likes and the highest user engagement of the Trump pages, according to Facebook’s metrics. It appears to exist primarily to redirect traffic to RedStateWatcher.com, a pro-Trump site founded in 2015 that is the embodiment of ad dollar-generating clickbait. (Its owners run a number of other clickbait sites, including one devoted to Bigfoot.) One of the page’s posts linking to a RedStateWatcher.com story titled, “What do you think of Donald Trump’s nickname for Hillary Clinton?” attracted more than 5,000 likes and 1,600 comments. For comparison, a Buzzfeed post revealing the true color of The Dress got 10,000 likes and 2,400 comments. Red State Watcher is estimated to bring in as much as $300 in revenue per day.

Of the dozens of Trump pages seemingly run by click-farms, just one responded to our request for an interview, though the anonymous operators of the Trumpians fan page declined to provide the name of their company, citing the “volatility of Trump haters.” Trump’s Facebook page is the only one of over 100 the company runs that’s dedicated to an individual politician. “The other [candidates] don’t have any value from a merchandise perspective 😉,” the operator said by Facebook Messenger.

Many of Trump’s fan sites hide behind a veil of anonymity as they spread repetitive—and often hateful—content around the web in a quest for revenue. Often you’ll find posts promoting the same merchandise appearing on multiple pages, like this “limited edition” mug that appears on three of the top five most popular Trump pages we found.

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This pro-Trump gem, Babes4trump, mostly posts mildly pornographic photos of women who ostensibly support Trump. The top comment on every single post is from a web hosting company, hawking its services:

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We reached out to HostCable, which is based in Mexico, via Facebook Messenger, but were given ambiguous answers about the company’s connections to Trump and the Facebook page. The company said that while it doesn’t run Babes4Trump, its “social media promotion network” hosts a number of Trump websites and runs an app that automates posting of comments to them.

In some cases, the support is genuine even if the desire for profit is, too. Ferretti said that while he does sell Trump tees and mugs through his pages, he and his two partners’ main hope is to “help connect supporters and ultimately help get [Trump] elected.” Since starting the page last July, he estimates he’s sold about a thousand t-shirts at $22.99 a pop—just enough to cover the cost and time spent running the page. He expects it to ramp up once Trump officially clenches the nomination at the Republican convention this July.

Adams, of Trump Nation, has invested in a more elaborate operation: he has a team of part-time contributors that help him create new graphics and original videos and who post content dozens of times a day. After launching his Trump store a month ago, he says he’s had a few hundred orders. He eventually hopes to turn Trump Nation into a home for the new Common Sense Conservative movement—and into a nice-sized portion of his pay check.

Adams said he takes issue with pages spreading hate in a quest to profit off Trump. “Some people are out there just trying to whore a few dollars out of it,” he said. “I’m trying to build a brand—and a respectable discussion.”